Coming of the robots, reshaping our society in ways difficult to foresee

Summary:   Next in a series looking at one of the great social challenges of the 21st century.

Journalists obsess over shockwaves — high probability, low impact scenarios.  So many shockwaves of advocates willing to make outlandishly exaggerated statements with God-like certainty — often by people with a financial interest in study or mitigation of that danger.

Meanwhile large shocks inexorably approach, with little attention.  With little study of their timing or effects.  Such as peak oil, often discussed on this website. This posts discusses another example:  automation, with the resulting unemployment of a large fraction of our workforce.  It’s coming, as robots grow more sophisticated every year …

  • sensors (gps, vision),
  • ability to understand and speak using simple grammer,
  • connectivity to other devices (e.g., automatic expense recording and billing systems — as with tolls and parking),
  • dexterity (manipulative skills), and
  • semi-intelligence (reasoning within a limited domain).

Like a drunk playing Russian roulette, we’re confident that our success with the first two waves of automation (agriculture and manufacturing) means that we need make no effort to prepare for the next wave.

Even if computers never become truly intelligent, surely machines are likely to become far more capable in terms of their ability to perform a relatively narrow range of tasks. The reality is that a substantial fraction of the routine, specialized jobs held by average people — including many people with college degrees — simply do not really require the full intellectual breadth of a human being. This is the reason that a lot of jobs are boring. If computers can already beat the best chess players in the world, isn’t it likely that they will also soon be able to perform many routine jobs? In fact, I think there are good reasons to expect that machines may begin to approach this more specialized level of “intelligence” within a decade or two.

Since many of the people who work in fields like artificial intelligence and robotics are talking about the future prospects for these technologies on a fairly regular basis, I assumed that a similar discussion must be going on among economists. Surely, the economists are thinking ahead. If machines get smarter and start doing many of our jobs, then the economists will have a plan in place. At least they will have thought about it; they’ll have some good suggestions. Right?

Well, no. It turns out that while technologists are actively thinking about, and writing books about, intelligent machines, the idea that technology will ever truly replace a large fraction of the human workforce and lead to permanent, structural unemployment is, for the majority of economists, almost unthinkable. For mainstream economists, at least in the long run, technological advancement always leads to more prosperity and more jobs. This is seen almost as an economic law. Anyone who challenges this “law of economics” is called a “neo-Luddite.” This is not a compliment.

Martin Ford, The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (2009) — The ebook is free.

Quo bono?  Who will benefit?

Without preparation the rewards from automation will go to the rich — the upper 5% and especially the top 1% — who own almost the entire capital stock of the US.  This has happened during the past generation, a major factor in the growing unequal distribution of income and wealth.  If this continues, American workers will bear all the resulting suffering.  This was how the first chapters of the industrial revolutions played out in the 18th and 19th centuries.

With a little time and few drinks any group can imagine solutions to the mass unemployment from automation.  Implementing any of these will require imagination and social cohesion on a level we seldom display in times other than war.  Saying it will work out well in the end might lead to large-scale social disruption — well-deserved by our fecklessness.

“In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if, in tempestous seasons, they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”
— John Maynard Keynes in A Tract on Monetary Reform (1923)

How might this play out?

If everybody shares to some degree in the benefits of automation we might have a wonderful future.  Perhaps leading to a material utopia, or the Singularity first described by Vernor Vinge (Marooned in Real Time, 1986).  But there are other paths, well-worth and easy paths down which we might slide.

Sabotage was adopted by the General Federation of Labor of France in 1897 as a recognized weapon in their method of conducting fights on their employers. But sabotage as an instinctive defense existed long before it was ever officially recognized by any labor organization.
— “Sabotage: The conscious withdrawal of the workers’ industrial efficiency“, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Industrial Workers of the World, October 1916

Luddites {were} organized bands of 19th-century English handicraftsmen who rioted for the destruction of the textile machinery that was displacing them. … {They} were generally masked and operated at night. Their leader, real or imaginary, was known as King Ludd, after a probably mythical Ned Ludd. They eschewed violence against persons and often enjoyed local support. In 1812 a band of Luddites was shot down under the orders of a threatened employer named Horsfall (who was afterward murdered in reprisal). The government of Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd earl of Liverpool, instituted severe repressive measures culminating in a mass trial at York in 1813, which resulted in many hangings and transportations. Similar rioting in 1816 was caused by the depression that followed the Napoleonic Wars; but the movement was soon ended by vigorous repression and reviving prosperity.
— From the Encyclopædia Britannica

In legend, the term sabotage comes from the early days of the first industrial revolution (perhaps as early as the 17th century), when workers would throw their sabots (wooden shoes) into the gears of the textile looms to break the cogs.

The evolution to our modern capitalistic system includes many periods of labor violence.  All unsuccessful, mostly crushed by military force.  We had the late 19th century labor wars, mostly crushed by the National Guard, US Army, and mercs (i.e., Pinkertons — the 19th century Blackwater), as in the 1892 Homestead Strike, the 1894 Pullman Strike, and the Colorodo Labor Wars of 1903-05.  More recently:

Until the New Deal victories by labor, which might be an aberration due to special circumstances.

It’s already happening

Now for the sad news:  the recession has pushed corporations to take the radical steps necessary to implement the next phase of automation.  Economists see the resulting structural unemployment, but their theories pervent them from understanding what they see.

More on this on another day.

For more information

Other posts about robots and automation

  1. 4GW: A solution of the first kind – Robots!, 8 April 2008
  2. The coming big increase in structural unemployment, 7 August 2010
  3. The coming Robotic Nation, 28 August 2010
  4. The coming of the robots, reshaping our society in ways difficult to foresee, 22 September 2010
  5. Economists grapple with the first stage of the robot revolution, 23 September 2012
  6. The Robot Revolution arrives, and the world changes, 20 April 2012

2 thoughts on “Coming of the robots, reshaping our society in ways difficult to foresee”

  1. Sandwichman explains why robots will not end wage inequality

    Comment by Sandwichman to “The Conservative Leftist and the Radical Longshoreman” by Peter Frase at Jacobin magazine, 20 September 2011 — Posted at Peter Frase’s website:

    94011 organic bananas… 94060 organic broccoli… 4664 non-organic vine red tomatoes…

    The Coase theorem… J.M. Clark’s economics of overhead costs… Chapman’s theory of the hours of labor…

    As you can see, I know my produce codes. I also know my labor economics, history of economic thought and labor history. My beef (grass-fed, non-medicated) is not with being a grocery store clerk but with being “ONLY” a clerk. Meanwhile Lawrence Katz of Harvard and David Autor of MIT can ad lib policy speculations about the future on the basis of ideologically-tinged textbook hearsay. Ignorance is not just bliss, it’s tenured!

    The dirty secret is that the cushiness of the cushier jobs is sustained only by insurmountable and utterly arbitrary barriers to entry. It would be far more cost-effective to install the social equivalent of “automatic checking machines” in corporate executive suites and hospital and university administration buildings than at the supermarket. But the culture of meritocracy insists that there must be some folks whose time and effort (scratching each others’ backs) is worth so, so, so much more than anyone else’s.

    The less meaningful the differences in education, knowledge and skill become, the more important it is to maintain the differential — and the larger that differential becomes.

    I work with “technology” every day that makes me chuckle. Bar codes. You’d think that someone would figure out that machine-readable bar codes have to be… well, machine-readable. Not always. Here’s where the difference in development between “the forces and relations of production” become manifest. The people currently making decisions about implementing labor-saving technology are precisely the ones whose “labor” of social domination is most redundant. There’s only so much hierarchy to go ’round.

  2. About the legal implications of home robots (attorneys thinking ahead, looking for new opportunities)

    Open Robotics“, M. Ryan Calo (Prof, Stanford Law), Maryland Law Review, No. 3, 2011 — Abstract:

    With millions of home and service robots already on the market, and millions more on the way, robotics is poised to be the next transformative technology. As with personal computers, personal robots are more likely to thrive if they are sufficiently open to third-party contributions of software and hardware. No less than with telephony, cable, computing, and the Internet, an open robotics could foster innovation, spur consumer adoption, and create secondary markets.

    But open robots also present the potential for inestimable legal liability, which may lead entrepreneurs and investors to abandon open robots in favor of products with more limited functionality. This possibility flows from a key difference between personal computers and robots. Like PCs, open robots have no set function, run third-party software, and invite modification. But unlike PCs, personal robots are in a position directly to cause physical damage and injury. Thus, norms against suit and expedients to limit liability such as the economic loss doctrine are unlikely to transfer from the PC and consumer software context to that of robotics.

    This essay therefore recommends a selective immunity for manufacturers of open robotic platforms for what end users do with these platforms, akin to the immunity enjoyed under federal law by firearms manufacturers and websites. Selective immunity has the potential to preserve the conditions for innovation without compromising incentives for safety. The alternative is to risk being left behind in a key technology by countries with a higher bar to litigation and a serious head start.

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